For some reason we often mistake self-help books to be written with the intention of actually aiding us, whilst this billion-dollar industry is just another marketing tool used by such ‘gurus’. They write a book mainly to promote their speaking gigs and websites, as these are far greater sources of income and they need “Author of…” under their title.
We need to pause before whipping out our credit card on Amazon or even at a local bookshop, look down at the self-help book that of course features a huge retouched photo of them and an outlandish claim. Is your money best spent on that book, even if it is a New York Times Bestseller? Or more importantly, is your time best spent on it?
I am not saying every self-help book is guilty, there will always be diamonds among the rubble, what I’m saying is that you need to educate yourself on how these books are failing you whilst using you for their own benefit. Then make an informed decision on a case by case basis, with each book. Learn the problems with the self-help industry, so that you can focus your time and energy on actually helping yourself and growing.
Why should we stop reading self-help books?
There is no time to waste, so let’s jump right in! Corny, I know, but I couldn’t help myself.
It may seem ironic for a writer to claim that reading can be a waste of your time, and I would never say this otherwise. Fiction, biographies, educational books, etc. can all be as long as they want in my opinion. The more to devour! But my point is that self-help books tend to be unnecessarily overpadded. The author has a basic point to get across, but their publisher needs a full thick manuscript. Longer books tend to sell, and so they write far more than they need to on the subject.
Look at the introduction of the book even, you can get up to thirty pages simply rationalizing the need for yet another book in this overwritten topic. An anecdote of when they got the idea, or how they came to the point they are. Interesting for some, but too long for all. Self-help writers never just get to the point, they dance around it for hours and then leave you with something you already knew, you now just know it in 8 different wordings.
If it were simply the lessons, I would be more keen on self-help books. But instead you’re constantly confronted by forceful self-promotion.
“Did I happen to mention my website? Let me diverge onto that topic for 100 pages, with numerous links and specific articles to catch your interest.”
“Let me mention my speaking tours, and how many people they help, and all these people who specifically told me how it CHANGED THEIR LIFE COMPLETELY. So yeah, the $10 you spent on this book aren’t enough, go pay $200 and listen to me take up another entire day of your life!”
I get why they do it, they want to earn more and use this as an extra marketing scheme. But it isn’t fruitful for us as readers, so we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be used like this. It wastes our time, and only fills their bulging pockets.
Aside from this egoistic and ambitious need, there is also the fact that they never just get to the point. I read “You are a Badass” by Jen Sincero, and grew so tired of her constant anecdotes. Because each one was a cut and paste of the one prior, I couldn’t discern between them at all. They all went like this:
Lowest Point in Life → Changed This One Thing → Look At Me Now, You Can Be This Too!
The examples feel so concocted, so easily applicable to each point they wanted to make, and there are so many stuffed within the pages. You circle the point 100 times until finally they actually say it. And by then, I KNOW!
Maybe this is a criticism of us, the ones reading self-help books, rather than those actually writing them. But it’s an issue nonetheless.
We buy a self-help book and force our way through it, and then we think that’s it. That counts as self-improvement and growth, to simply read the book. Maybe we’ll try a few of the ideas mentioned, start a gratitude list or start saying “No” more often. But inside we think we’re at least halfway there, when we’re not.
We need to be ripe for adaptation, we need to be growing and changing, and not thinking that reading 200 pages of self-promotion counts as that. Becoming our best self isn’t a one time thing, it is an everyday practice, from the moment you wake up in the morning. There are no shortcuts, and self-help books will lie and have you think there are.
“The one thing you need to do to become your best self!”
“Make this one change and you’ll be rich within a year.”
No, you won’t. And thinking that there are shortcuts and easier routes make you lazier, self-help books can actually make you a worse person.
But my biggest issue with self-help books is that they can stop you from seeking professional help. In terms of these motivational entrepreneurship books, this can be in the form of a life coach. A life coach could help you far more as they can adapt to who you are, your goals and experiences. They will help you grow, and take all the steps with you.
Or in terms of the more recent trend of mental-health self-help books (what a mouthful, I hope that term doesn’t catch on!), they can actually stop people from going to therapy and receiving the treatment they sorely need. You can’t heal your depression, your trauma, your social anxiety, from a book. You need to speak to a trained professional, and it will help you so much. Sure, read these books on the side! My therapist is clinically trained, and she recommended a book on dealing with grief and depression to me. But this is alongside her treatment, not in its place.
Becoming better is hard work. Growing is exhausting. Don’t let a book convince you otherwise. Because if it was easy, wouldn’t everyone do it? If it was easy, would it be so worth it? The difference between us and those conquering career or life goals, is that they’re not just reading, they’re DOING.
And on the note of trained professionals, I think this is an appropriate time to mention that self-help ‘gurus’ are not that. There are exceptions of course. But a lot of self-help authors have no life coaching training, no psychology education or anything of the sort. Yet they are in a position of power, preying on people’s insecurities and claiming to know the answers. That can be really dangerous, as people will be influenced, they will believe what you say, even if it is detrimental to them. As someone who studied Psychology, there is a reason that you have so many years of training and learning. Because you enter a position of power, where anything you say could result in worsening damage. It is terrifying, and the main reason I didn’t pursue a career in clinical Psychology. You can’t assume that what works for you works for others, you can use your experience, but alongside training and learning.
Share your experience, sure. But don’t make promises that you can’t keep, and don’t give information that has no scientific validation. That is morally wrong.
Often we’ll think a self-help book ‘worked’, it saved us! But sadly this isn’t always due to the advice given in the book, as this advice can be very basic, common-sense. Rather the change is you. You’re now paying attention to something that you didn’t before. You are opening yourself to growth, you’re aware that you have room to improve. That is why you’re improving, not because you read their anecdotes and common sense reworded into a pillar of knowledge. Buying the book is what set you into motion, not reading it.
You may have enjoyed reading that self-help book (which is an advantage in itself, like reading for pleasure) but that doesn’t mean it worked. Too often their advice is just common sense or overly simplistic. It’s things we’ve heard countless times, but will only listen when they’ve got a glamorous cover. How many self-help books have told you about the importance of confidence? We know this, we just only want to know it once they tell us it will fix everything. Fake it till you make it, certainly an approach that self-help books take.
The only thing worse than paying for these books that have no actual effect, is that they lead you to believe that they will. They make false promises, and set you up for disappointment or the coping mechanism of lying to yourself and pretending it did help. This false hope can be further categorized in three ways.
Self-help books seem to oversimplify the issue, leading you to believe it is truly that simple as well. Do this one thing and you’ll own any room. Say this one thing on a first date and true love is right around the corner. They make things seem so simple that when it comes to actually putting the lesson into practice, you’re saddened to realise that this isn’t the case. And either you keep trying that one tip instead of broadening your knowledge and efforts, or you feel dejected and believe it’s too difficult and that you’re the issue here.
You are not the problem, these self-help books are.
This ties in to the unrealistic expectations they breed, which lead to more than just disappointment, they cause self-doubt and feelings of worthlessness. For these self-help books feel the need to be extreme, extravagant. They tell you how they became CEO in two years, or how they juggle five kids with a full-time job and write a book a month. And the problem is that they’re the exception, not the rule. And while I believe that you can do incredible things, conquer any situation you want to, I want you to be realistic with it. If you hate writing, then no amount of self-help books will make you an incredible writer, nor should they. You can open your own business, but you need more than a year to be successful in it. You can find love, everyone can, but that requires time, effort and self-awareness.
They disappoint you because they promise the impossible. They simplify their own journey to be neat and motivational, which leads us to feel like failures when we don’t follow the huge milestones. You won’t be focusing on the areas you actually need to get where you want to be, as they’ll distract you with something that’s easily packaged into a book. They’ll make you aim for the stars, and miss the entire atmosphere and galaxy of possibilities in between.
Because also, do you actually want what they’re promising? They make you think that their goals are the meaning of success, when success is what you want it to be. Maybe your idea of success is having three children that you adore, that you are home plenty for to raise, and nothing else would make you as happy. Or maybe you want to combine children with a specific job, become a Mommy Blogger or the CEO of a company. Perhaps you want to be a bestselling author, or perhaps you want to keep writing as a hobby, a love on the side of the other things you do. That’s okay, you should measure your success, not a guru.
Self-help authors give you false hope because between the pages of “The Last Self-Help Book You’ll Ever Need” everything is easier, and perfect. Each anecdote leads to a lesson, each failure is in the context of learning or a hidden success. The harm in self-help books lie in that there are no situational factors.
Maybe the 5 mindset exercises they mention did help them to feel like a success, but that isn’t what got them the job they have. They were born with specific skills, ambition or intelligence, and those are hard to get later. They also encountered specific situations in life that contributed, or maybe held them back so they developed more in certain areas. Your life will not copy the blueprint of theirs, hence you cannot follow their exact map to the Emerald City.
In the real world, it can be harder to wake up at 5.30 everyday without ever missing it. Because of children, illness, bad nights of sleep, schedules, jet lag, commitments, sleep cycles and more. Their book has one priority, how to become X. But your life has more priorities, it has family, friends, hobbies, passions, experiences. And that isn’t to say you shouldn’t have goals, or that you can’t wake up at 5.30am. It’s to say that it is a lot easier on paper than in real life, and that you are dealing with things that they are not. So cut yourself some slack, push yourself in a healthy way.
In the world of self-help, the first and most fundamental step to growth is to admit that you’re okay as you are, that you don’t need anyone else’s help. This is a prime belief, and gives you control over your success. You don’t need classes, a life coach, funding or a support system. You need yourself.
But if that’s what you need, why do you need this $10 book? Why do you need them? Follow their advice and be your own guru then.
There are exceptions to this, such as “How to Win Friends and Influence People” which was published in 1936. But as I said before, these are the exceptions, not the rule. The rule is that most books take at least a year to be published after they were written. Which means that they come out at a different time to their conceiving. This can have quite an effect, as we live in such a fast paced society and so they lose their relevance quickly.
Look at right now, who would’ve ever seen 2020 coming and could’ve prepared us for it? Who knows how we’ll be in 2021, how we can achieve success in that time?
Because everything changes, adapts and evolves, and these books can’t adapt with us.
Self-help books are harmful, but I’m not going to stop reading them completely, and neither should you. But what I will do is choose the books carefully. I will not be swayed by flashy titles and false promises. I will read books written by experts, trained in these fields, and that don’t offer a quick fix, but instead a change of mindset or tools to achieve my inner growth.
I will trust myself over the books. They are a guide, a crutch, but they are not more important than other areas of development. They can assist my growth, but they will not create it for me.
If I am not 100% certain about a book, then I will prioritise online classes or my writing, as these benefit me more.
Another solution? Podcasts. They’re made at the time, nice and quick, so they’re relevant and focused on now. They also have far less time to work with, so won’t be boring me with an hour of self-promotion. Plus, you can find them free on Spotify, so I don’t have a monetary commitment that will force me to continue if I’m not growing from it.
And checking reviews with a skeptical nature will always get you far!
Welcome to Symptoms of Living! A place where I like to relieve myself of the barrage of thoughts and ideas filling my mind. Here I'll take a look at various topics, from books to BPD, series to self-harm, there's nothing that we can't, and shouldn't, talk about.
Having struggled with mental illness since the age of 15, one of the hardest parts was how alone I felt in it. While mental illness is beginning to be discussed more openly, and featured in the media, I still think there is room for improvement. So whether it is mental illness or merely mental health, a bad day or a bad year, let's make this a place to approach it and strip it back. Everyone has their own symptoms of living, and you certainly won't be the only one with it.
For any comments/questions/enquiries, please get in touch at:
I'd love to hear from you!